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tion would at any time be required, in order to ren-
der it suitable to the circumstances of man. But
even after the religion of nature has been restored
in its original purity, the provision made by it for
the comfort, the direction, and the hope of man, is
inadequate to the new situation in which he is
placed, by being a sinner. In this new situation,
the deformity, the weakness, the depravity of mind,
which belong to sin, enter into his condition ; he is
also a transgressor of the divine law, and as svicli is
liable to the consequences of transgression. But
religion cannot exist in such a situation, without
the knowledge of some method of obtaining par-
don. For the expression which you read in the
130th Psalm, is strictly accurate. " If thou. Lord,
" shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest
be feared ;" i. e. there can be no fear of God, no
religion to a sinner, unless there be forgiveness with
God : and, therefore, the first thing to be considered
in judging of the importance of Christianity under


this second view is, What are the hopes of forgive-
ness in the religion of nature ? From whence are
these hopes derived ?

It is manifest, that the hopes of forgiveness are
not necessarily connected with that law which the
religion of nature delivers. A law enjoins obe-
dience, promises reward, it may be, to those who
obey, and always denounces punishment against
those who disobey. It would destroy itself, if it were
delivered in these terms : You are commanded to
obey, but you shall be forgiven although you trans-
gress. The hopes of forgiveness, then, are to be
sought in some part of the religion of nature dis-
tinct from the law. But it is not pretended that
the religion of nature contains any specific promise
of forgiveness, the record of which may be pleaded
by transgressors as a bar to the full execution of
the sanctions of the law. It is not possible to show
the place where such a record is to be found. And
therefore there is no source from which the hopes
of forgiveness can be drawn under the religion of
nature, but those general notions of the compassion
of God, from which it may appear probable that he
will accept of the repentance of a sinner, and rein-
state in his favour those who have offended him,
when they return to their duty. It is admitted, by
all who have just notions of the tlivine character,
that the same process of reasoning, which conducts
us to the knowledge of the being of God, establishes
in our minds a belief of his goodness. It is natural
to think, that the goodness of the Supreme Being,
when exercised to frail fallible creatures, will assume
the form of compassion or long suffering. We see,
in the course of his Providence, various instances of


a delay or mitigation of punishment ; and there are
many appearances, which clearly indicate that we
live under a merciful constitution. But we are by
no means warranted from them to draw this general
conclusion, that all who repent will finally be for-
given under the Divine government. You will be
satisfied that this conclusion goes very far beyond
the premises, if you attend to the following circum-
stances. The same process of reasoning which
leads us to the belief of the goodness of God, ascer-
tains also his holiness, his wisdom, and his justice,
all of which seem to require the punishment of sin-
ners. It is true that those perfections, of which
our conceptions lead iis to speak as separate from one
another, unite in the Deity with entire harmony to
form one purpose, and that there never can be any
opposition among them in the Divine mind, or in
the execution of the Divine counsels. But it is im-
possible for us to say how far any particular exer-
cise of justice or of goodness is consistent with this
harmony ; and it is manifest that every reasoning,
which proceeds upon a partial view of the divine
character, must be insecure. Further, we are not
acquainted with the relations which subsist amongst
the parts of the universe. But, we can suppose that
reasons of the divine conduct, inexplicable to us, may
arise from these relations ; and even in that part of
the universe which is most open to our observation,
although we cannot always account for the limita-
tions of the divine goodness, we can mark instances
where the long suff"ering of God seems to be ex-
hausted, where repentance ceases to be of any avail,
and men are left to endure, without alleviation, all
the evils which they had incurred by transgression.


It is possible, that instances of this kind, which are
very numerous, may be mingled with the examples
of compassion in the Divine government to guard us
against the conclusion which repeated compassion
might seem to warrant, to give us warning that the
time for repentance has an end, and that, in the
final issue of the system in which we are placed, the
obstinate transgressors of the divine law shall bear
without remedy the full weight of that punishment
which they deserve.

But even although there were not so many ana-
logies in nature, conspiring to show that repentance
is not always efficacious, the bare impossibility of
demonstrating, from any known principles, that
every penitent shall be forgiven, is sufficient to
evince the infinite importance of Christianity. If
the religion of nature, with all those intimations of
the divine goodness, which are the ground of trust
and hope to those who obey, does not give a positive
assurance that it is consistent with the nature and
government of God to forgive all who transgress,
then it is plain that the new situation, into which
men are brought by being sinners, renders a pro-
mise of pardon most desirable to them, because with-
out this special declaration of the divine will, their
religion must rest upon a very precarious founda-
tion ; and therefore the Gospel, whose peculiar cha-
racter it is to contain such a declaration, which pub-
lishes the forgiveness of sins through the blood of
him, by whom all that believe are justified, and have
peace with God, deserves the name of suayysX/ov, good
tidings, better than any other message which the
world ever heard, and is in truth the best gift which
heaven could bestow. It is further to be observed,


that while the religion of nature leaves the reason
of a sinner to struggle with his passions, and does
not revive his soul, under the experience of his weak-
ness, by the assurance of his receiving any assist-
ance in the conflict, the Gospel contains a promise
of grace as well as of pardon. It confirms the law
of his mind by those influences of the Spirit, which
we stated as perfectly consistent with the reasona-
ble nature of man, and while it publishes the remis-
sion of sins that are past, places him in circum-
stances so favourable to his moral improvement as
may prevent a repetition of sins. That progress in
virtue, which the grace of the Gospel forms, is con-
nected with the hope of a reward, which is infinitely
more precious than the most exalted creature of God
can claim as a recompence due to his obedience, but
which, having been purchased by the death of
Christ, is reserved in heaven to crown the feeble di-
vided services of a degenerate race, and the security
of which is so completely incorporated with the
whole constitution of the law, that no doubt of this
unmerited gift being at length conferred can remain
in the breasts of those who live under the power of
the Christian religion.

From the circumstances that have been men-
tioned, you may mark the precise difference between
the religion of nature and the religion of Christ,
The former has no original defect. When properly
understood, /*. e. when conclusions are fairly and
fully drawn from premises which the light of reason
may discover, it includes the most exalted views of
the perfections of God, and of his moral govern-
ment, and a complete delineation of the duties of
man as a creature of God, an individual, and a mem-


ber of society. But being, by its constitution, the
religion of those who perform their duty, it holds
forth only general doubtful grounds of hope to those
who transgress. The Gospel, on the other hand,
having been revealed after transgression was intro-
duced, and professing to be the religion of sinners,
makes an adequate provision for the new situation
of man. It is this difference which constitutes the
infinite importance of Christianity. A remedy is
there oifered for that state of depravity which is
acknowledged to be universal. The remedy is com-
plete in its nature. But it is not of use to those by
whom it is rejected. In what degree its efficacy
may extend to those who never heard of it, we have
no warrant to say. But it is most reasonable, that
those, who refuse the remedy when it is offered to
them, should remain under the disease. The disease
was not created by the Gospel ; it existed before-
hand, and unless it be removed, the natural effects
of it must be felt. The Scripture, therefore, says,
that " he that believeth not the Son shall not see
life, but the wrath of God abideth on him,"* i. e.
the sentence of condemnation, which his sins de-
serve, retains its force. And he cannot surely com-
plain, if when he despises the deliverance which the
Gospel brings, he continues in the same state in
which the whole world would have been, if there
had been no Gospel.

Hitherto we have deduced the importance of
Christianity from its suitableness to the present cir-
cumstances of man, from the value of the blessings
which are peculiar to this religion, and from this

* John iii. 36.


plain position, that a rejection of it necessarily im-
plies a forfeiture of its peculiar blessings. But we
have not yet exhausted the subject, and there re-
main some awful views of the importance of Christ-
ianity, which imply that the rejection of it is not
only a forfeiture of blessings, but is attended with a
high degree of positive guilt.

In order to enter into these views, you will recol-
lect, from the general account of the Scripture sys-
tem, that the manner in which the assurance of par-
don is conveyed by the Gospel discloses to us the
Son and the Spirit of God, two persons, of whose
existence the light of nature had not given any in-
timation, but who, by their active interposition in
our behalf, claim the reverence and gratitude of all
to whom that interposition is made known. The
sentiments, which it becomes us to entertain towards
any person, correspond to the knowledge that we
have of his character and his exertions. And there-
fore as the first duties of natural religion respect the
God and Father of all, who is made known to us by
his works, so there are duties resulting immediately
from that knowledge of the Son and the Spirit which
is commvmicated by the Gospel ; and a failure in
these duties is as truly a breach of morality as any
transgression of the law of nature.

It may be said, indeed, that these duties are
binding only upon those who study the revelation
of the Gospel, and that if any person willingly
remains ignorant of the peculiar nature of that in-
terposition which it records, he is not answerable
for neglecting the duties created by that interpo-
sition. But it will readily occur to you, in an-
swer to this objection, that a reasonable creature


is as much bound to make himself acquainted
with the extent of his duty, as to perform it after
it is known : and you will find that the plea,
drawn from wilful ignorance or unbelief to excuse
the neglect of the peculiar duties of the Gospel, is
diametrically opposite to the declarations of Scrip-
ture. We read there, that " he that believeth not
is condemned," for this very reason, " because he
hath not believed on the name of the Son of God."*
His unbelief is the cause of his condemnation. The
enemies of Christianity have formed, out of such de-
clarations, a very heavy charge against our religion.
They say that the Gospel means to threaten men
into a belief of its doctrines, and that the manner in
which we are now stating the importance of Christ-
ianity is calculated to supply the defect of evidence
by v/orking upon the principle of fear, and to force
assent in spite of reason. We admit that if this
charge were true, the Gospel would indeed be un-
worthy of God, and unworthy of man. We admit
that authoritj^ never can supply the place of truth,
and that not even the immediate prospect of danger
can compel a reasonable creature to yield his assent
without sufficient evidence. But, at the same time,
we assert, that it is often incumbent upon a reason-
able creature to exercise his reason, and that he may
deserve punishment for refusing his assent when
sufficient evidence is offered him. In common life,
we meet with many instances where men bring ca-
lamities upon themselves and their families, by not
believing what they would have believed, if they
had bestowed proper attention. It is therefore no

* John iii. 18.


new doctrine, and it is perfectly analogous to the
ordinary procedure of the Divine government, that
men should suffer for unbelief ; and in the case of
the Gospel, there are circumstances which render
unbelief, in a peculiar degree, criminal. The Gospel
contains the strongest call which a reasonable crea-
ture can receive, to exercise his reason in judging of
evidence. It professes to be a message from God,
the author of human nature, affording man that as-
sistance in recovering the dignity and ha])piness of
his nature, of which he is conscious that he stands
in need. The person, who delivered this gracious
and seasonable message, appealed to a series of pro-
phecies meant to prepare the world for his coming,
and to works of his own, far exceeding human
power. Unlike the former servants of heaven, he
called himself the Son of God ; and he introduced
his doctrine not as a temporary institution, looking
forward to something beyond itself, but as a com-
plete, universal, and unchangeable religion. " Last
of all," says Jesus, " he sent unto them his Son,
saying, they will reverence my Son." We behold
here every circumstance, which is fitted to rouse at-
tention, and which can render inattention unpardon-
able. That the most exalted Spirit should refuse to
listen to any thing which bore the name of a mes-
sage from his Creator, were presumption. But, that
a feeble imperfect creature, who is conscious that he
has offended God, should precipitately reject a reli-
gion which brings the offers of mercy, were mad-
ness. It might be expected, that, even although he
doubted of its truth, he would eagerly examine it,
because, if it be true, it brings him the most joyful
tidings, and, if it be true, to reject it is to reject tlie


counsel of God against himself, and to exclude him-
self from all future hope of mercy. For you will
notice, and it is an awful consideration which places
the importance of Christianity in the strongest light,
that, however men might flatter themselves, under
the simple religion of nature, with general reason-
ings concerning divine mercy, the moment that a
special revelation is published, promising the mercy
of God upon certain terms, and disclosing a particu-
lar manner of dispensing pardon to those who re-
pent, these general reasonings are at an end. If every
one must admit that God knows better than we do,
what is becoming his nature and consistent with his
administration, it follows undeniably that it is most
presumptuous in those who acknowledge that par-
don is necessary, to reject the particular method of
dispensing pardon that is revealed, and yet still to
build upon uncertain reasonings an expectation that
it will be dispensed. If the words which Jesus ut-
tered be true, the hopes of nature are included in
the hopes of the Gospel, and no hope is left to those
who, neglecting the " great salvation spoken by the
Lord," betake themselves to the religion of nature.

" This," then, " is a faithful saying, and worthy
of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the
world to save sinners." It is supposed by your pro-
fession that you understand and acknowledge the
infinite importance of Christianity considered in this
view ; and it will be your peculiar business to im-
press upon the minds of others a sense of that im-
portance. For this purpose you must " be ready
always to give an answer to every one that asketli
you a reason of the hope that is in you ;" you must
show, by your manner of defending Christianity,



that you are not afraid of the light, and that you
consider the evidences of Christianity as capable of
bearing the narrowest scrutiny, and those whom you
call to receive it as entitled to examine into the
truth. But your chief difficulty will be to bring
them to this examination with a fair unprejudiced
mind. You will meet with many who ascribe to
want of evidence, or to a peculiarity in their under-
standing, what does in fact proceed from an evil
heart. You have to encounter that pride which re-
fuses to submit to the righteousness of God, and
those evil passions, which, because they do not ex-
pect to receive indulgence under the Gospel, create
a secret wish that it were false. If your labours,
performed with good intention, with diligence, with
prudence, and with ability, shall, through the bless-
ing of God, overcome these obstacles, shall form in
the minds of your hearers what our Lord calls a
good and honest heart, and shall establish their faith
upon a rational foundation, you will not only pro-
mote the welfare of society by teaching in the most
effectual manner the great duties of morality, but
you will be the instruments in the hand of God of
saving the souls of men from death, and so carrying
forward the great purpose for which this dispensa-
tion of grace was given.

I have chosen throughout this chapter to avoid a
phrase which you often hear, the necessity of the
Christian revelation, because that phrase, when un-
guardedly used, is apt to convey improper notions.
It may be conceived to imply, that God was in jus-
tice bound to grant this revelation ; whereas it
should always be remembered, in theological dis-
cussions, that sinners have no claim to any thing,


and that the Gospel is a free gift proceeding from
the unmerited grace of God, for the bestowing or
withholding of M'^hich He is in no degree accounta-
ble to any of his creatures. The phrase, necessity
of the Christian revelation, may also be conceived to
imply, that it was impossible for God, in any other
wav, to save the world ; whereas we have no prin-
ciples that can enable us to judge what it is possible
for God to do. We investigate, according to the
measure of ovu' understanding, the fitness of that
which he has done. But there is an irreverence in
our saying confidently, that infinite wisdom could
not have devised other ways of accomplishing the
. same end. I have chosen rather to speak of the de-
sirableness and the importance of Christianity, which
imply all that should be meant by the necessity of
it. viz. that it republishes with clearness and autho-
rity the religion of nature ; that it gives the peni-
tent that assurance of pardon which the religion of
nature did not afford them ; that it brings along
with it an indispensable obligation upon those to
whom it is made known to examine its evidence ;
and that it leaves those who wantonly reject it to
perish in their sins.

I have spoken of this subject with an earnestness
and seriousness suited to its nature. You often hear
it stated from the pulpit, and there are many printed
sermons where it is fully illustrated. It enters into
most of the books which treat of the evidences of
Christianity. But it requires from you a particular
study ; and when you have leisure to bestow close
attention upon it, I would recommend to you to read
the ablest book that ever was written against the
importance of Christianity, I mean Tindal's book.


entitled, Christianity as old as the Creation. The
object of the book is to show, that the law given to
man at his creation was complete ; that it is pub-
lished in the most perfect manner ; that it does not
admit of amendment ; and that the additions, which
succeeding revelations profess to make to it, are a
proof that these revelations are spurious. The jdo-
sitions of this book, then, if they be true, completely
annihilate the importance of Christianity ; for they
go thus far, to show that there is nothing in the Gospel
true, but what was from the beginning contained in
the religion of nature, and published more universal-
ly, and with much less danger of error, by being
written on the heart of man, than by being recorded
in the books of the New Testament. I would not
advise you to read this book, which is written with
great art, without at the same time reading some of
the answers to it. Leland, on the Advantages of
the Christian Revelation, has given a full picture of
the religious and moral state of the world, when the
Gospel was published, which demonstrates that there
is much false colouring in Tindal's book. Foster
also, the author of Sermons and Discourses on Na-
tural Religion, has written against Tindal. But
the most complete answer, which ought to be read
by every student who reads Tindal, is Conybeare's
Defence of Revealed Religion. There have been few
abler divines than Bishop Conybeare. He had a
clear logical understanding, and his talents were
whetted and called forth by very formidable an-
tagonists. He was contemporary with Lord Bol-
ingbroke, whose numerous writings against Christ-
ianity are replete with false philosophy, malicious
VOL. I. 2d


misrepresentations of facts, and keen satire. Lord
Bolingbroke used to say, that it cost more trouble
to demolish Conybeare's out-works, than to take the
citadel of any of his other opponents ; an expression
which implies, that this divine took always strong
ground, and knew well where to rest his defence.
Accordingly in his answer to Tindal's book, he has
detected all its sophisms and equivocations : he has
affixed a precise meaning to his words, and has
shown, in a train of the most convincing and mas-
terly reasoning, that that republication of the reli-
gion of nature, and that method of redemption,
which the Gospel contains, were most desirable ;
and that these views of the importance of Christ-
ianity are not inconsistent with the original per-
fection which every sound theist ascribes to the law
of nature. Bishop Conybeare's book is a complete
illustration of the importance of Christianity. But
there are three other names which cannot be omit-
ted at this time. Clarke, in his Evidences, has
stated fully what is commonly called the necessity
of revelation. In the first volume of Sherlock's
Discourses, which is almost wholly occupied with
this svibject, you find those luminous views which
distinguish the writings of that eminent prelate ;
and Bishop Butler, in the first chapter of the second
part of his Analogy of Natural and Revealed Reli-
gion, with rather less obscurity than is found in
other chapters of that precious treatise, but with no
less depth of thought, has stated, in a short com-
pass, the importance of Christianity.

Leland on the Christian Revelation.
Foster on Natural Religion.


Conybeare's Defence of Revealed Religion.

Clarke's Evidences.

Sherlock's Disconrses.

Butler's Analogy.

Paley's Evidences.

Brown against Tindal.

Halyburton on Deism,




A SECOND general observation arising out of the
short account of the Scripture system, is this, that
we may expect to find in that system many things
which we do not fully comprehend. Deistical writers
urge this as an objection against the Gospel. They
say that it is the very character of revelation to
make every thing plain, but that a system which
contains mysteries, leaves us still in the dark, and
therefore, that the mysteries with which the Gospel

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 28 of 32)